What I’m reading: Make It Stick

Good afternoon!  As the summer draws to its end, I am working on my summer reading.  First up is my faculty read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.

My husband, David, is a high school math teacher and read the book a year ago.  He was obsessed.  He’d get immersed and then dive into a passionate treatise while changing diapers on why he loved the book.  He recommended it to our admin as a faculty read, and here we are.

I’m loving it.  It’s in that middle ground between the dense articles you might read in a grad program, and super pop psych books.  It gets the message across, tells some good stories, and practices what it preaches.

One big take away is that we think we know how we learn, but we really don’t.  We have a lot of lore and intuition–not much more than superstition–and most of it doesn’t amount to lasting learning.  It has some storytelling aspects, where an anecdote is told to illustrate a concept every few pages.  It’s folksy, but as a fan of stories, I’ve enjoyed the real-life illustrations.  (The one about the process for marines who learn to jump out of planes and not break their ankles was fascinating!)

For those who, like me, got their teacher education in the last decade or so (thanks NYU!), this jives with constructive learning, problem/project based learning, student-centered classrooms, etc.  If you are a chalk-and-talk or drill-and-kill person, you might not enjoy this.  The focus is on how learning is encoded, retrieved and made permanent.  Teaching is discussed, insofar as the most effective ways for students to NOT forget what you teach them.  Which, you know, is the point.

I find myself feeling lucky that I teach English.  One major message is that learning needs to be varied, spaced and interleaved (other stuff inserted in, so it’s not just one topic/skill all the time).  My class is naturally that way: first a poem, then a novel, then a few short stories.  We don’t just drill metaphors for 2 weeks, then move on to similes.  We spiral back over and over to the same concepts in different settings in different genres.  I already have a lot going for me just through the natural structure of my class.

And, there isn’t much mindless drilling in the English classes at my school.  The one exception might be in grammar.  That’s where I’ve done a lot of reflecting as I read the book.  I’ve noticed that students tend to forget one unit as soon as it’s over.  But, the problem is, they need to use apostrophes correctly FOR EVER, not just for the next two weeks.  So, my first step next year is to spiral back to the material throughout the whole year.  An apostrophe question on every quiz.  I’m also going to try to mix up my grammar practice and instruction, so it doesn’t fall into mindlessness (read the chapter, do 10 practice problems, repeat).

Another big take away I’ve enjoyed is the notion that harder learning is better learning.  When something “feels easy” to learn, it doesn’t mean you are learning it as well as you think you are.  The research Make it Stick cites shows that the harder you have to work to retrieve your learning, the deeper your learning is.  For those of you brain enthusiasts, the more you are laying down those neural pathways in different ways, the stronger they are.  If you access the learning a different way, you are strengthening it.  If you have to connect it to other things, you strengthen the pathways.  It may sound counter-intuitive, but when you read about the studies, it becomes clear.

All of this makes me excited for the year because I tell students and parents early on that I embrace a philosophy of “hard fun.”  Seymour Papert coined the phrase, and I heard it at an NCTE conference in 2007 or 2008.  It’s pretty straight forward and makes me think of building my chicken coop by myself with no plans.  It was hard, but I was having so much fun.  The idea is supported by the research that Make It Stick presents, which I now have to bolster my philosophy.  If learning feels hard, then the student is on the right track–which will be a relief for my very ambitious, eager-to-succeed students.  Too many of them view struggle as a sign of failure and poor ability.  As the book agrees, we feel that “easy” learning must be good, but the truth is easy come, easy go.

In an interesting turn of events, I noticed a pretty active hashtag on Twitter for Make it Stick.  I threw a few tweets up and pretty quickly had a lot of people, coincidentally all men, begin to debate these principles with me.  In case it needs to be said, I didn’t write the book.  If you would like to debate the merits of the sources and the research, please take it up with the authors.  Or, better yet, you could publish your own research in a peer reviewed journal and then write your own book.  I look forward to reading that.  Until then, I’d appreciate you staying out of a friendly conversation among teachers who are enjoying the book and want to stay positive about using its concepts in the classroom.



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